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Most die-hard cyclists would jump at the chance to go on a bucket-list bike tour cruising through the idyllic rolling hills and medieval villages of Tuscany...but on an electric bike? Psh, that's not even real riding, right? Many, especially those in the purist camp of traditional cyclists, believe assistance of any kind, such as a motor or a built-in battery, deters from the original—and intended—point of the sport.
This notion explains why my five-day cycling trip in Italy this fall started with a slew of jokes aimed at me and my ride. The snark came out in full force after the 15 other travelers learned that I'd be one out of two folks cruising through the Cycle Europe tour on electrically powered wheels. The rest were on traditional, man-powered road or hybrid bikes.
"You gonna kick up your feet and read the paper?" one laughed as he pedaled alongside me. "Might as well be on a motorcycle tour," another quipped later at dinner.
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It was all in good fun, of course. Though we were all strangers, we belong to the same tribe and were in Italy for the Adventure Travel Trade Association's World Travel Summit, which draws some 800 travel agents, operators, and international media to a new country (or continent) every year to discuss all things adventure travel.
We share a common goal of getting people out of their comfort zone to explore and connect with new communities and cultures. Ultimately, my new friends became my mini focus group to learn more about the growing demand for electric or e-bikes. (Sales in Europe, where e-biking took off some 10 years ago, have skyrocketed as much as 90 percent between 2016 to 2017, while the United States is slowly catching up to the trend.) Despite the initial teasing, we were all on the same page that e-biking is a game-changer.
"Two hours on an e-bike could cover double the distance, or more, than a regular bike in the same amount of time. You can just go so much farther," says Raino Bolz, owner of Adventure Shop in South Africa, which began offering e-bike tours in 2018. "We recently hosted an e-bike tour where six out of 10 were non-cyclists," says Bolz. "They were fit, but not used to riding, so they would have never signed up to ride 31 miles straight. But they did it and loved it. Now, they're cycling!"
E-Bikes Are Not All Easy Riding
For the record, the rider decides how hard they work on an e-bike. In most cases, you're not just sitting pretty, unless you're on a Class 2. Let me explain: In the United States, there are three classes that determine the type of assist (how much oomph) each bike offers. Class 1 and 3 offer a maximum of 750 watts in assistance, cutting off at either 20 or 28 mph, respectively. (In other words, the bike returns to a standard ride with no assistance once you tap out the speed.) Class 2, which is what you might see your Seamless delivery guy on, doesn't require any pedaling, but instead is propelled forward by a throttle and has a top speed of 20 mph. Europe has a different system.
The Scott e-bike I borrowed from Cycle Europe maxed out at 26 km, or 16 mph, and had five levels of power: "off" (no assistance), "eco" (let's say, a 20 percent boost), "tour" (40 percent boost), "sport" (60 percent boost), and "turbo" (80 percent boost). These percentages are rough guesstimates that don't apply to all e-bikes. To avoid draining the battery, you never want to be in "turbo" for more than a few minutes. If you're frugal with your boosts, as I was, you can comfortably ride for 50 to 62 miles on a single charge.
When "off," I was at a major disadvantage, hauling a 40- to 50-pound bike (batteries can be quite heavy), while others, on road or hybrid bikes, were pushing half that weight, or less. Setting it to "eco" was my best bet at leveling the playing field—though that wasn't always the case. On the flats, where I'd normally cruise over 20 mph on a lightweight road bike, I had to battle the weight of this bulky beast and dead motor to keep up with the group.
While I was often breathless on the flats, unlike my peers, I returned to conversational level on the hills thanks to the pedal-assist. Essentially, the e-bike inverted my usual effort. As a result, I enjoyed listening to folks on the flats and downhills, which is where I concentrated most on technique (high rpms, constant shifting, and leaning into Italy's famous hairpin turns). Then, on the uphills, I'd take over the storytelling as others gasped for air. I was happy with the role reversal because it meant 1) I'd never get dropped, and 2) I wouldn't have to expend energy worrying that I couldn't tackle every hill.
Best part: I got to reap key benefits of biking, including being active, engaging all my senses, and exploring new places. All of this without the usual dose of anxiety that comes with feeling underprepared. Instead, I could put all my efforts and attention toward being present, taking in the sights, reveling in good conversations, and eating with abandon at every meal (as one does when in Rome, er, Tuscany). Fun fact: A full belly is more manageable when you can hit "turbo" for that final push home.
Why E-Bikes Get a Bum Rap
The problem is that too many cyclists, and athletes in general, associate pain with achievement. E-bikes threaten that.
"Some purists think it's the easy way out," says Maria Elena Price, who co-owns Cycle Europe with her sister, Monica. (They bought it 10 years ago from their parents who founded the Italian-based brand in 1972). "One of our longtime customers, who's a serious athlete, complained when we first introduced e-bikes five years ago. He felt slighted. Part of the camaraderie [of group riding] is that everyone feels this communal effort. Someone on an e-bike is just not working that hard," she says explaining his concern.
I get it. Having completed 10 triathlons, four Gran Fondos, and one seven-day, 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles—all of which I let be known to this fit travel crew because, well, I did start to feel defensive—I've experienced my fair share of teeth-gritting pain in the name of athleticism. But there's something to be said about baring your pearly whites in pure joy rather than survival.
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Megan Duehring, an e-bike marketing specialist at Shimano, agrees with me: "There's always going to be purists who are anti—and that's OK. But to say that [certain types of] e-bikes don't allow you to work out is just false. E-bikes don't pedal for you. And people are actually riding more than they would because they are having so much fun."
Since I began my biking obsession 12 years ago, I've been smiling every single mile. Sure, my constant beaming this adventure was partially due to Cycle Europe's brilliant guides, Andrea, Enrico, and Michaela, who expertly wove us through breathtaking regions of southern Tuscany, clocking some 30 to 45 miles per day. The huge grin on my face was also due to the fact that no matter the hill size, grade, or length, I could devour it on my e-bike like a delicious piece of tiramisu cake.
More often than not, I found myself in the middle of the pack on the uphills for fear of not respecting others' suffering. Occasionally, I had to pass for safety reasons (like if my front wheel was getting to close to their rear) or just because, and in those circumstances, I'd often feel bad about it. The group was, generally, accepting, breathlessly saying things like, "There she goes," when I'd apologetically pass on the left. Except for that one time our guide, Andrea, initiated an impromptu man vs. machine challenge, and went up against me in "turbo" mode on a very steep and long climb. Shockingly, he beat me in the end (I think he would have preferred to die on the bike rather than lose). I was secretly relieved—may humans always triumph over technology.
The Reason E-Bikes Are Here to Stay (Despite Naysayers' Criticism)
The customer who complained to Price about the e-bikes early on later rescinded on his own volition. "He recognized that he was being selfish in assuming that everyone can work as hard or has the time to prepare," says Price, who keeps adding plug-ins to her fleet.
"Last year, we only had 20 e-bikes. In 2018, we had 40 and next year, we'll likely add about a dozen more. When we're in high season, we usually sell out. It makes riding so much more accessible and delightful," she says.
Fact is, e-biking doesn't limit your riding, it enhances it. In addition to being a transitional tool for non-cyclists, e-biking is a great alternative for those who were once avid riders but, for whatever reason, can't ride like they used to.
"We had a group of three generations join one of our tours: two kids, the parents and the 78-year-old grandmother. While grandma and dad both rode e-bikes, the mom and kids were all on standard bikes," Bolz says.
In another example offered by Fred Ackerman, founder of Black Sheep Adventures, based in California, e-biking allowed one man to complete his dying wish. "We had this one client in his 70s, battling terminal cancer. He booked his last vacation with his kids and grandkids with us. The e-bike enabled this man to be with his family on this final trip. That's really special," he says.
I'm neither old, nor sick, nor out of shape, thankfully. I exercise regularly, about two to three days a week. But I haven't had time to go for an outdoor spin all year. While I could have muscled through the five-day ride, I know that would've come at a cost. I would have likely been relegated to the back of the pack or, worse, stuck in the support vehicle for much of the tour, especially during the climbs to the romantic hilltop villages we called "home" each evening. As a once-avid cyclist, this would have been a huge blow to my confidence. More importantly, it would have ruined the experience. But instead, thanks to the e-bike, I had a blast!
"Yes, you work less on an e-bike, but you can do more," says Ackerman. "Someone who would potentially have to bike only in flat areas can now ride somewhere hilly, like Tuscany. They can pursue something more challenging than they would have otherwise because of this technology." This rings true for me, and for many others.
Duehring affirms the mass appeal: "The people who are getting on e-bikes want to get outside and be active. It allows them to open that door again."
The door is wide open for me—I'm dreaming up where my e-bike will take me next. I already have invitations to hit the road in California, Ireland, Maine, New Zealand, and South Africa—and that's just from the folks who were on my Cycle Europe tour. As long as there's a good outlet to recharge each night, I'm good to go anywhere.